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Learning Astrophotography Part Two: Went Better, But Ended in Terror.

While driving towards Mt. St. Helens, I noticed I was behind a car on a road that probably doesn’t receive much of any traffic during this time of year and at this time of night.

After a while, the car began flashing its headlights, turned on its hazards, and pulled to the side. I slowed down and saw a woman trying to flag me down. I stopped.

“Excuse me, I’m new to the Area and I’m trying to take some pictures of the stars. Do you happen to know where a good place to go would be?”

I replied excitedly replied, “Me Too! Follow Me!”

A few miles down the road, we came to a roadblock. The road ahead was closed during the winter. We turned back and headed to Coldwater lake.

We parked at the boat launch.

Coldwater lake is a good-sized lake. Directly across the lake there was a mountain ridge and the clear water reflected the stars. It really was the ideal spot to grab great photos.

 

I got out and started setting up my camera and tripod. She pulled out an iPhone 11. Hmmm. “Are you using the standard camera app?”

She told me she was. I told her if she downloaded Focos or Manual Camera, she would get more control and it might help.

We shot a series of photos and talked for about an hour and then when different ways. I wanted to take some pictures at a few of the bridges that dotted the road towards Mt. St. Helens.

I had been out snapping photos for about 4 hours, it was going much better than my first attempt. The photo’s appeared to be a vast improvement. One my way up to the Mt. St. Helens viewpoint, I noticed a sign for a bridge viewpoint. I decided to head back that way.

It was really great location. I thought that my best shots of the night were probably going to be taken there. I set up my Camera.

I took one photo. 25 second exposure…

I snapped another.

My Labrador, my partner in crime growled and began to bark.

I heard something crashing through the woods. The woods in the direction it was coming from were thick. It wouldn’t have been easy for me to walk through them. They were also blocked off by a chain link fence. That ended twenty feet behind where I parked.

Multiple tree branches were cracking loudly.

 

The only shot I managed to snap before the mysterious animal scared the crap out of me. You can almost see the bridge crossing the valley if you look closely

Something unseen was pushing itself through the woods. It sounded like it was headed my direction. It may have just been the sudden jolt of adrenaline. I grabbed my camera, still attached to the tripod, mid shot.

Terrified, I yell at my dog to get in the car. I could still hear whatever it was breaking tree branches. I hopped in the car I started it, backed it up and aimed the headlights in the direction of the noise.

I couldn’t see anything through the thick brush.

I wasn’t going to stick around to take a better photo of the bridge though.

Nobody really warns you how scary it can be going out into the woods alone to shoot the stars on a dark, moonless night

I’d bet it was probably an Elk that was more scared of me, than I was of it. I had seen dozens of them that night.  Black bears are hibernating, so I’d imagine it wasn’t a bear. It could have possibly been a Cougar, but I’m guessing a Cougar would’ve been less clumsy. While I’m mostly skeptical of the existence of Sasquatch, I wasn’t too far away from the Ape Canyon, where a purported Bigfoot attack occurred long ago. Adrenaline and fear can cause the mind to wander a bit.

How I set my camera up.

  • I don’t own the best lens for Astro Photography. I was using an 18-55mm Nikon DX kit lens.
  • The widest the aperture would open was 3.5, not ideal, but from what I read, not impossible.
  • I turned off auto distortion control, auto focus, noise reduction. I had changed my ISO throughout the night to see what turned out the best.
  • I shot my photo’s as RAW files.
  • I set up a 2-second delay to avoid camera shake.
  • I used the rule of 500, which at it’s most simple is simple 500 divided by the focal length of your lens. For me, 500 divided by 18 meant 27 seconds. My Nikon D3200 gave me the option of 25 or 30 seconds. I tried a variety of shutter speeds to test out the results.
  • I tried a variety of white balances, but I stuck with Nikons Cool-White Fluorescent setting for most of the night with the reasoning that it may highlight more blues.
  • I shot at multiple locations. Some with no ambient light, some with the dome light on in my car, some with headlights on. A few with a couple parking lot light posts a few hundred yards behind me.
  • I used the Dark Sky app to find locations with minimal light pollution
  • It’s recommended to shoot on a moonless night, so I checked the lunar calendar.
  • If you’re out shooting somewhere with cell phone service, you can use this calculator to help you nail the rule of 500 based on your camera brand and lens focal point.

 

 

I forgot to turn off my headlights but it resulted in this interesting blue, which was further compacted by my white balance setttings.

My Thoughts and Plan of Action for My Next Outing.

 

All in all, I think they were an improvement over my first attempt. You can read about that here.

All these photos are unedited. I’m not quite sure how to properly edit the photo’s in Photoshop, Lightroom or any of the various. I went through a handful of tutorials and honestly, I wasn’t particularly successful.

On my next attempt, I plan on shooting a couple dozen identical photo’s in each spot, so I can play around with layering. 

The primary problem I noticed, is that many of the photo’s had a ring of purple grain around them. I expected grain, but I wasn’t entirely sure what caused the purple ring effect.

I want to figure out how to get more of the Milky way in the background.

I planned on using the Sky Guide App to locate the galactic line but forgot to use it. The app works with or without service, which is ideal because many places that lack light pollution also lack cellular service.

All in all, I think they were an improvement over my prior shots.

I’ll be upgrading my Camera and Lens soon prior to my next outing. I’m planning on tentatively shooting at Mt. Rainier or out in the Olympic National Park. Any suggestions on a camera and lens that won’t break the bank are welcome.

I also plan on documenting my attempts at learning to edit my photos and various tools I tried in other posts.

The side of the mountain is lit up from a single light post 200 yards from where I was standing.
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Abel Trevino
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